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NXNE 2011: Night Two

All images by Don Kreger

(Note: This is the second in a series of on-the-scene reports from the midst of Toronto’s North by North East music, film, and interactive conference, running through this weekend and presenting 650 bands in 50 venues around downtown TO.)

7 p.m.: The film festival component of NXNE focuses on music-related movies, some a few years old and some brand-new, with an emphasis on selections you’re not likely to find in your local multiplex or even on Netflix. They tend to run during the day, before the concerts start (i.e., when we are recovering from our late-night hijinx and writing about them here), but in order to get a feel for that aspect of the festivities, we check out Red Shirley, a 2010 short co-directed by Lou Reed in which he interviews his 100-year-old cousin. A far cry from the usual rockstar-as-auteur fare, it’s a beautifully shot, totally straightforward home movie documenting a century of Jewish immigrant experience. Even more exciting was the venue itself, he National Film Board’s spiffy Mediatheque at 150 John Street, the lobby of which features the most inventive video viewing room I’ve ever seen, offering drop-in visitors the chance to watch thousands of NFB-funded projects while seated in comfy chairs reminiscent of the Starship Enterprise. Film geeks, check this out on your next trip to Toronto.

Land of Talk

8:30 p.m.: We make our first visit to the free stage at Yonge and Dundas, Toronto’s answer to Times Square and/or Blade Runner; the scene is very much like Thursday at the Square minus the beer tent and with even more people crammed into a similarly undersized parcel of land. We’re here for Land of Talk, a Montreal ensemble dispensing the kind of dreamy pop that plays beautifully on their 2011 album Cloak and Cipher; in this setting I just can’t get too excited about them, partly because they’re forced to compete with the blitz of giant-screen billboards (including one showing us CityTV’s live broadcast of something that looks like Dr. Who, offering unsolicited music videos for all their songs) and mainly because I’ve seen and heard way too many other variations on this formula—wispy female lead singer fronting otherwise-all-male indie guitar band— in my life. Who knew the Cranberries would turn out to be the architects of the sound of a new century?


9:30 p.m.: Same stage, same formula, new variation in the form of Stars, another Montreal band and one with a huge local following—as in, spilling out onto and across Yonge. “Everything wants to sell me something / It’s a vortex of advertising,” improvises co-lead singer Amy Millan between songs, and I want to hug her. I spend most of their set spotting the free-floating 80s signifiers—Buggles eyewear, porkpie hat, analogue keyboards emitting laser sound effects, fake British accents, male lead singer Torquil Campbell’s Morrissey impression (complete with cut flowers flung into the audience), and the inescapable Beautiful South vibe every time the two vocalists duet—but it’s immediately clear that none of this is in any way intended as ironic quotation by either the musicians or the (very young, very devoted) audience. An awful lot of Stars’ songs sound to me like stuff the bands they’re evoking would consign to B-side compilations, but then a fair chunk possess enough actual hooks of their own that I start to ease up on my skepticism. Half an hour later, I grow convinced they’re starting to play some of their own songs more than once. And yet: Perfectly enjoyable in a somewhat disposable way, just like the actual 1980s.

11 p.m.: In the first moment of NXNE that feels like what I assume SXSW is always like, there’s a huge line outside Lee’s Palace waiting to see two much buzzed-about bands, Dum Dum Girls and Cults. The former look like they’re aiming to be this generation’s Runaways (or, for that matter, Shangri-Las), but despite the all-black lingerie-dresses and stockings, the post-feminist band name, and the appealingly raunchy sound of their recordings, onstage tonight they are essentially doing exactly what the Go Gos and Bangles did in the early 80s. (Before you scoff that those two groups were pure pop confection, youngsters, be aware that they both had the same kind of underground cred and both played venues just like the Palace and the Continental when their first albums came out.) The concept of an all(-or-nearly-all-)girl band shouldn’t really be that much of a novelty in 2011, but given how far folks like the riot grrrls and Hole took the idea two decades back, the Dum Dums (catchy as they are) strike me as a little reactionary, both musically and in terms of content. The biggest surprise of their set is how short it is: under half an hour.


Midnight: Having spent the last few hours lamenting the current generation’s utter lack of concern with originality, we witness a refreshing twist. It’s easy to pick out all the key influences of Cults, especially since they’re the same ones most of their contemporaries are playing around with (I kept imagining I was seeing Natalie Merchant fronting Jesus and Mary Chain), but the New York band puts them together in a fresh way. These are hardly the first five people to juxtapose bright orchestral pop with darker, menacing noise, but they do it incredibly well. Soundbites from actual cult members and leaders drive home the point that the decade that began with the Shirelles ended with the Manson girls. Buffalo actually got a dose of Cults—and surely a longer one than the festival format allows—the night before Toronto did, at the Ninth Ward. If you missed ‘em there, be on the lookout for their return. While I love what they’re up to now, I’m not convinced they’ve fully arrived where they’re ultimately headed. (This is one act that could really use the right outside voice/editor to do for them what producer Mike Chapman did for Blondie—speaking of 80s bands who dug the 60s and are dug all over again in the 00s.)

12:50 a.m.: A lot of choices in an overamped situation like NXNE are determined by extra-musical factors, like “Where can we go that’s not too far away from where we are now?” Which is how we find ourselves at 918 Bathurst, a church-turned-community center in a once-funky neighborhood clearly undergoing gentrification as well as enjoying a glorious multi-culti/omnisexual moment that reminds me of the East Village in (you guessed it!) the 80s. We catch the final two minutes of what sounds like a spirited set of rumba, jazz, and flamenco (according to the program notes) by Sultans of String, a Toronto-based collection of rootsy acoustic players. It’s exactly the kind of alternative to “Alternative” music that I’ve been thirsting for after nearly overdosing on Anglo-American guitar and synth acts for the last 48 hours. Turns out the venue’s entire Friday night lineup, curated by local party promoters Funkete and mainly showcasing the city’s “tropical bass” scene, looks like it was great. I find myself buying a CD by touring Brazilian post-rockers Labirinto on the strength of its artwork and $5 pricetag. (Check them out for yourself here, but be forewarned: these moody ambient instrumentals are light years away from bossa nova, tropicalia, or any other old-school sounds of Brazil you may be expecting.)


1:30 a.m.: Another in-the-general-vicinity stop-by, this time at a lovely neighborhood bar/restaurant in Mirvish Village called the Central, where we catch some enjoyably boozy, low-key lo-fi courtesy of Toronto quartet Shade on a postage-stamp-sized stage. Just how small is that stamp? The drummer is located in a completely separate room-within-a-room-within-a-room, waving at the lead singer as if they are across the street from each other.

3:10 a.m.: We haven’t intended to stay out nearly this late, but the subways, busses, and streetcars are all running so infrequently that we find ourselves walking halfway across downtown to get back to our hotel. Good thing the bars are open till 4 for this very special weekend, so we hop into the Silver Dollar long enough to regroup, catch a scrappy blast or two of rock from Toronto’s Give Us the Daggers before a surprisingly packed house, and spot the Dum Dum Girls loading their gear into a waiting car after playing a 2 a.m. secret/surprise show down the street at the El Mocambo. We’re in bed by 4, barely conscious most of the day Saturday, but ready—we think!—for one more night of memorable music.

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